19th August 2004.
Rising to the challenge

By Martin Wroe & Malcolm Doney

Given its recent history, it is remarkable to see the progress Rwanda has made towards reversing the economic and social consequences of the 1994 genocide in such a short time. A decade on, many in Rwanda believe that the country is on the comeback trail.

COMING TO TERMS WITH THE PAST: President Paul Kagame lights a torch in commemoration of the 1994 genocide. Rwanda has come a long way since.

There has been rapid progress at increasing access to education – basic education is free and compulsory according to the new constitution. More than 80 per cent of primary-school-age children are now enrolled in school, with the Government announcing plans to expand basic education to nine years and remove fees for lower secondary schooling – a huge achievement given that so many teachers were killed or fled.

There is still a long way to go – drop out rates are high and only five per cent of the very poorest children go to school. The country has also made strides in achieving gender equity in education – yet boys remain better off in terms of secondary education.

This is ironic since women are playing a particularly significant role in rebuilding the country – in the new Parliament, 39 of the 80-member Chamber of Deputies are women – a proportion that beats every other country in the world. Coffee, the main export, is selling on the world market again, albeit at the lowest price in decades. And the tourists are coming back, principally to see Rwanda’s unique community of wild mountain gorillas.

“People are now beginning to feel that security is returning,” explains Yvette Mujwaneza, who works with Asoferwa – Association de Solidarite des Femmes Rwandaises – an organisation which helps women and children traumatised by the genocide. “It is a slow transformation, but it is happening, the feeling that perhaps this will not happen again.”

Rwanda’s historic lack of education was a key factor in the Hutu elite’s ability to persuade thousands of ordinary people to unquestioningly massacre their Tutsi neighbours. One way of reducing the potential for a repeat is rapid expansion of education.

“Our biggest success has been in training so many new teachers,” explains Eric Karimba, director of primary schooling at the Ministry of Education. Once children have received an education, he says, “They cannot so easily be persuaded to do bad things”.

Rwanda’s next challenge is to ensure that the quality of teaching and educational resources goes up commensurately. Ten years ago, adds Balthazar Nsenjeyumva (the principal) at Groupe de la Sale teacher training college, education was “only for the privileged class”. Today, education is “becoming something for everyone.”

FREE FOR ALL: Rwanda’s children are benefiting from the country’s free primary education policy.

His school lost scores of teachers during the genocide, either killed or fled the country, but today staff numbers are high again – and students who once feared and distrusted each other, now get on well.

And education is about so much more than learning, explains Sister Annunciet, headteacher of Groupe Scolaire de Notre Dame de Bon Conceil: for example, young girls who were traditionally “suppressed” in Rwanda, now have a much clearer idea of what their rights are.

“Now women are better organised and the country is realising that educating girls is vital – when you teach a girl about good diet in school, she goes home and teaches her mother in the village.” And, says Hope Tumukunde, women’s district officer for the Kigali rural area, given even a rudimentary education women will grasp opportunities to take a decisive role in public life. “Women often say to me that if they’d been in charge, the genocide would never have happened. The government has provided the guidelines for women’s participation and now they are saying ‘why not?”

But neither education nor gender equity can transform Rwanda by itself, says Pascal Rwayitare, director of education for the Myumbe Province – the country’s economy has to take off, agriculture and industry have to develop, tourists have to see more than genocide memorials and gorillas.

The legacy of the genocide means that Rwanda faces far greater challenges than simply those of any other poor country with scarce land and growing population. Enormous funding and resource needs spring directly from the genocide – assistance to survivors, orphans, traumatised children, children-headed households, violated women with HIV-AIDS, the heavy costs of the justice system and resettling millions of refugees and internally displaced persons.

And yet, given what they have endured, the people of this country are making real progress. Healing the traditional enmities is at the heart of it. The government is providing a lead. As Tumukunde says, “We now have leadership which doesn’t first ask who you are, but asks what your capacity is.”

“Today in Rwanda”, says Pacifique Rutaganda, a custodian of the genocide memorial site at Ntamara who saw his family decimated, “We are becoming one people – Rwandans – not Hutu or Tutsi. It is when you divide people that you have a war ”.

From ‘Developments’, a DFID quarterly magazine.